Nostalgia

Giorgos Karagounis: The Greek Legend Who Defined Passion

Giorgos Karagounis Greek legend
Credit: Getty Images

The word “team” according to the Cambridge dictionary, can be “used in a number of phrases that refer to people working together as a group in order to achieve something.”

That’s exactly what Greece did in the 2004 European Championships. Otto Rehhagel brought together a certain number of individuals, whose unprecedented work rate led them all the way to the trophy.
It was back on July 4, 2004, when the Greeks stunned the world of football by raising the silverware into the sky at the Estádio Sport Lisboa e Benfica.

Greece won the tournament as a team and celebrated as such, but there was one player who would stand out, neither because of his Messi-esque skills nor due to his lethalness in front of goal.

Giorgos Karagounis was the heart and soul of that team, as he perfectly encapsulated the ethos of Rehhagel’s side with his extremely high work rate and his never-give-up attitude on the pitch.

When Gennaro Gattuso was once asked who was the Greek player that resembled his football style, he didn’t have to rack his brain for the right answer.

“Karagounis resembles me a lot, as his career was marked with self-denial and professionalism, playing at the very top-level for many years,” said the current Milan coach in an interview for Contra.gr.

Karagounis took his first steps into football at a young age, kicking a ball around in his village next to the city of Pyrgos, in the south-west of Greece.

A former Panathinaikos legend, Juan Ramón Rocha, spotted his talent while he was coach-player at Paniliakos; a team that was playing in the fourth-tier of Greek football.

“When I saw him I was shocked and I couldn’t believe it,” Rocha told Contra.gr.

“Giorgos was a phenomenon from a young age, as it was like you would see a kid inside a man’s body.

“He was tough and stocky, with excellent characteristics and he would stand out from the first day.

“I talked with his father and we agreed that if I stayed as a coach at Paniliakos I would sign him for the team.

“Otherwise, I would talk to Panathinaikos, so he can have a trial with them.”

Rocha kept his promise and talked the then Panathinaikos president Vardis Vardinogiannis into signing the youngster.

Karagounis moved to Athens in 1993, but he had to wait until 1998 to make his official debut at the Greens, after a two-year loan spell at Apollon Smyrnis.

Playing on the right of midfield, as well as a box-to-box midfielder, he led the ‘Shamrock’ to the Champions League Group of 16 in 2001 and the quarter-finals of the tournament one year later against Barcelona.

Following a narrow win by one goal in Greece, Panathinaikos took the lead at Camp Nou and were 2-0 on aggregate, when Karagounis fell to the ground, holding his knee.

He had just torn his cruciate ligaments; an injury that would sideline him for the next five months.

‘Kara’ stood up, asked the permission of the referee and returned to the pitch. A few minutes later, however, the pain wouldn’t go away and he had to be replaced.

The Greens were subsequently defeated 3-1 and were knocked out from the tournament by the Blaugrana.
In 2003, Panathinaikos had another extraordinary season in Europe, as they reached the UEFA Cup quarter-finals, but the team struggled to deal with Olympiacos’ dominance in the domestic league.

Following a controversial derby between the two fierce rivals, the Reds clinched what would be their seventh league in a row.

A core of players who would lead Greece to European glory in 2004 was dismantled a year before the tournament and Karagounis moved to Inter on free, as the Panathinaikos board refused to renew his contract.

“In Italy, I had the chance to meet the [Inter] president Massimo Moratti, who is a very simple person and he impressed me with his attitude,” Karagounis told SuperSport FM.

“He is a true gentleman and he explained to me that the team were without a championship for many years and the expectations for the season are high.”

Inter did not manage to achieve their target in the two years that Karagounis spent in Milan, but the midfielder won his first ever trophy, as the Nerazzurri clinched the Coppa Italia in 2005.

After 36 games at the San Siro, he parted ways with the Italian side to move to Portugal for Benfica.

There, he would join forces with his teammates at the Greek national team, Kostas Katsouranis and Takis Fyssas, while he would also coincide with Fernando Santos for the second time, as the former Panathinaikos coach signed for the Portuguese side one year later.

Karagounis would stay at Benfica for a couple of seasons, featuring in as many as 61 games, scoring three goals and assisting another two.

“Giorgos would get angry when he was losing,” recalled Nuno Gomez.

“He was not one of these ‘frauds’ or ‘slackers’, as he would get very angry when a game wouldn’t go well and you could notice that.

“It was unbelievable how bad he wanted to win, whether it was an official match or a training session.”

As the 2006/2007 season was coming to an end, Karagounis asked Benfica’s board to leave the club.

When he departed Greece four years earlier, he promised that he would return to Panathinaikos, where he was eager to hang up his boots when he retired.

He officially signed a contract with the Greens for the second time in his career on July 7 and all of his attention was turned to the one and only target; winning a trophy with the team he loved.

He would have to wait three seasons for the silverware to come his way, but in 2010 Panathinaikos won the domestic double, with Karagounis as the captain of a group consisting of players such as Gilberto Silva, Djibril Cissé and Katsouranis.

A couple of years later, however, Panathinaikos and Karagounis would part ways once more and the then 35-year-old midfielder sailed to a new experience at Fulham, after 49 goals and 48 assists over his two spells with the Greek side.

He stayed at the Craven Cottage for a couple of seasons, before retiring from football to undertake a job with the team that gave him the most glorious moments in his career.

Karagounis returned as a football director to the Greek national team, after an international career that saw him participate in as many as five major tournaments in one decade.

Being the most capped player in the history of Greece with 139 appearances in 15 years, Karagounis eyed a comeback that would assist the team’s efforts to build on the achievements of his generation.

A series of poor results, however, led to his dismissal one year later, as Greece drew four and lost another four games in qualifiers for the 2016 European Championships.

Although his departures, both from Greece and Panathinaikos – the two teams he adored – left a bad taste in his mouth, Karagounis never lost his smile and his sincere passion for football.

On March 30, 2019, he participated in the Tottenham Hotspurs’ Test Event ahead of the official opening of their new stadium, in a friendly game between former Spurs greats and Inter legends.

After a collision with former Spurs midfielder David Howells, Karagounis picked up a head injury several minutes before the interval, to return with a head bandage in the second half.

Such is his dedication to his beloved sport, that not even fever could prevent him from playing and scoring in a friendly game of the 2004 Euros legends back in February.

“We want to give back something to the fans for their love towards us,” Karagounis told Novasports after the game.

“We come together to play these friendly games and we love doing it for them.

“Neither fever nor anything else will prevent us from doing that.”

About the author

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Panos Kostopoulos

Born in Greece, studied journalism in Preston (yes Preston, England) and lives in Madrid. Addicted to football and Liverpool FC.

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